Alan Matthews, professor (emeritus) of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, proposed such a policy during a debate in Dublin earlier this month. While not discounting existing Irish farmer schemes based on feed efficiency, genetics or grassland management aimed at helping Ireland reach its 2030 emissions reduction targets, he sees an on-farm levy as critical if the country is to meet those emission goals.
The professor was speaking at the Citizens’ Assembly meeting in Dublin in early November – the Assembly is a body of 99 citizens, chosen to be broadly representative of Ireland’s population, formed to deliberate on key issues in the Constitution. That particular meeting was focused on the carbon footprint of the Irish agriculture and transport sectors.
Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway, Michael Fitzmaurice, came out strongly against Matthews’ suggestion to tax on-farm emissions:
“Such an action would impact seriously on the price of food; which would in turn have major implications for the entire economy – particularly the less well-off members of our society,” said Fitzmaurice, according to an article in Agriland.
We caught up with Mathews to hear about the nuts and bolts of his proposal. He was not surprised by the negative reaction.
“I mean, clearly, nobody is keen to say that they welcome an additional charge on their output. I fully realize it [the proposal] is not a popular one. The question, though, is how else are we going to reach our targets?
“It is all very well to say that it should be another sector; it should be the transport sector or it should be the housing sector. Of course, we need to act in these areas as well. However, my argument is that, unless every sector is subject to the same disciplines, then we are simply just shifting the burden, and thus the cost, onto other sectors. I don't think that is a sustainable future.”
The professor stressed that Ireland, like all other EU countries, is faced with quite challenging targets in terms of carbon emission reduction.
“I suppose where Ireland stands out is, simply, the very high share of our national emissions that come from agriculture - it is a third overall, which makes us very much an outlier in the EU sense. It only compares to New Zealand on the global scale.
“If you’re told you have to reduce the target emissions by 30% by 2030 [relative to 2005 emissions] and [the reaction] is ‘well, we do what we can in agriculture, we try to improve our efficiencies and the [Irish] government has a lot of very good schemes, and farmers involved in those schemes are measuring and auditing their carbon footprint.’ Well, yes, those [developments] are all very positive. However, the bottom line is that if you look at the projections, given the expansion in our dairy herd and so on, it shows that agriculture emissions would be, more or less, the same in 2030 as they are today. We have to get them dropping.
“So that's really the challenge, and it's up to farmers or anybody else to suggest how are we going to do that.”
Carbon footprint measurement
When asked how easy it would be to implement a climate tax on livestock farms in Ireland, the professor said:
“Yes, clearly there would be enormous problems in trying to do this. What we are trying to do is to get down to the actual individual farm level, as we want to reward the farmers that are, actually, looking at ways to reduce their carbon footprint.
“A per liter or a per kilo levy on livestock [production] would be a very crude instrument. My hope and expectation would be that if we begin to move in this area, we would start putting a lot more effort into trying to look at how we could measure these things at farm level.”
He said that tools provided by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) to measure GHG emissions could help. There are three evaluation levels within such UNFCC methodology: “Tier 1 is very crude - you basically take a global average or a very simple approximation, and then Tier 2 is where you can actually show that you've done some research and that allows you to be a bit more nuanced, a little bit more specific about how you're measuring. Tier 3 is the most specific and it really allows you to measure the nitty gritty.”
An idea, continued Matthews, would be to have, for example, a standard charge on a liter on milk. “If a farmer can show to their processor they have a grazing season that is longer than that of their colleagues - a practice we know is associated with lower emissions and something we can measure – then those farmers should get some credit for that, they could have a smaller levy than their less carbon efficient neighbors.”
He said there is a need to identify farming practices that are associated with lower emissions.
A difficult sell
“Unless we start to do something like this, then we are not going to hit our emissions targets. What that means is that the Irish taxpayer will have to go out and buy the allowances from other European countries. We do not know, by 2030, how much this will cost us.
Matthews said it is often challenging to visualize the negative effects of livestock farming:
“The difficulty in persuading people is that if you propose it for water pollution, people can identify with the fish kill in the local stream. If you propose it for air pollution, people can identify with smog in urban areas; if you look at pictures of pastoral Ireland and the cows grazing peacefully, it is very hard to see damage [from livestock production]. It is a very difficult sell. I do not find it at all surprising that there would be a pushback from farmers.
"But we need to get engaged in a discussion as to exactly how we can move forward to get emissions on this downward trend.”
Land use change
He said there is a need to look at land use as well and to encourage farmers to think about that long term.
“Is livestock production the only thing we can do with or with our land? Obviously, that is a challenge for researchers because I know, in terms of renewables, some [Irish] farmers have gone into that, but they have been disappointed by the returns they have had. So, there's a lot more that we need to do on that side.”
In terms of what kind of land use change he envisaged for Ireland, he commented:
“The important thing is to get the signals right. What we need to do is to send a message that carbon emissions have a cost. Unless we get that right, nothing else will follow. To put it more positively, if we get that right, everything else will then follow. However, it is clear that forestry [could be of benefit]. We are not even reaching half of our planting target on an annual basis. I know farmers worry about the fact that they have to lock up their land in perpetuity if they planted trees, but that is clearly one thing that could be pushed.
“We need to send the right signals, and the research will follow.”